Editor’s Note: Editor’s Note: Bukeni Waruzi is executive director of Free the Slaves, a founding organization of the modern anti-slavery movement. He serves on the global coordinating group of Alliance 8.7, an initiative that unites governments, international institutions, businesses, labor unions and civil society organizations to combat forced and child labor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
All human trafficking is local. A trafficker – through force, fraud, or coercion – compels an individual to work in forced labor, engage in commercial sex, or get married against their will. It’s a deeply personal crime. But the fact that more than 40 million people are trapped by traffickers in these modern forms of slavery means that human trafficking is global. It’s happening all around us, in nearly every country.
The challenge for our generation is to end this global crime wave at the local level. One of the best ways to do that is to align anti-trafficking efforts with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Only one of the SDGs specifically targets modern slavery, the SDG 8.7, but taken together, the 17 goals form the world’s most expansive slavery prevention strategy, by changing the conditions that allow modern slavery to exist.
Modern slavery arises because of economic, social, cultural and legal conditions that create a state of vulnerability. These conditions are in part caused by global trends related to poverty, climate change, war and conflict, globalization, migration and other serious human rights violations, including the violation of social and economic rights, and racial injustice. Many of these root causes have been exacerbated by Covid-19.
People in extreme poverty, for example, are recruited by human traffickers into economic sectors that are mostly informal and hidden from the public eye and scrutiny. In vulnerable communities, there is no access to formal credit. Traffickers offer loans that result in debt bondage.
Another example is climate change. It disrupts weather cycles and agricultural production, which causes food insecurity and interrupts the livelihoods of families who depend on farming. Many are forced to migrate in an unsafe environment where traffickers offer false hope of jobs far from home to lure unsuspecting victims.
Addressing social inequality
Throughout the world, a perfect storm of forces fuels modern slavery: a lack of access to basic healthcare or legal and social services, limited opportunities for education and employment, gender inequality, and harmful social norms such as racial oppression.
The SDGs were enacted in 2015 to mobilize global attention and resources to address drivers of social inequality such as these at a global level. The framework is universal as it applies to all; it is transformative as it is human-rights based, people-centered, and gender sensitive; it is comprehensive as it covers all issues related to human rights; and it is inclusive as it includes everybody without discrimination or exclusion. SDG target 8.7 includes a call for an end to forced and child labor. Of course, political will, resources and the capacity of actors are among key determinants of the success of the SDGs.
My organization, Free the Slaves, has recently linked with the SDG framework in a new strategic plan that guides our front-line work on the ground in local communities affected by modern slavery. Our strategy is to help communities and neighborhoods chart paths toward freedom by helping leaders and local communities build resilience to global pressures at a local level. We will do that by engaging local communities, mobilizing them for innovative and sustainable responses to modern slavery, advocating for effective policies, and building a locally led movement through survivor and front-line activist networks, the Freedom from Slavery Forum and support for coalitions.
By combating modern slavery’s root causes, we break its cyclical grip. Harvard University research has shown that ending modern slavery in a village can dramatically increase levels of nutrition, education, medical care, even voting. These socioeconomic improvements, in turn, reduce vulnerability and make it more difficult for traffickers to operate in the future. This systems approach goes beyond assisting a single enslaved individual, it improves conditions for everyone in the community to create lasting change.
The UN General Assembly has been evaluating the UN’s Global Plan of Action to fight human trafficking, which began before the SDGs were adopted but laid the groundwork to mainstream anti-trafficking work into a wide range of UN programs. Certainly, more investment and effort will be required to tackle one of history’s greatest human rights challenges, including better involvement of civil society organizations and survivors.
But the UN global plan, and the SDGs, have pointed the way to stopping modern slavery in a community before it starts. Preventing slavery is the best path to end it.